Small Wars Journal

David Petraeus: A Shot from the Grave

Mon, 06/20/2016 - 7:15pm

David Petraeus: A Shot from the Grave

G. Murphy Donovan

“We can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them.” - Einstein                                

You remember David Petraeus. He was the Obama era model for a politically correct general. Petraeus left the military with four stars and a chest full of medals only to be undone by Tampa camp followers and a subordinate girl friend from his days in Kabul. Indeed, poor judgement caught up with the general, ironically, while he was Director of CIA. How the chief of a major intelligence agency could not know that NSA or the FBI might be reading his love notes is a mystery to the cloak and dagger crowd everywhere.  It is possible, however, that a naive general at Langley was exactly what the White House sought for CIA. A second and terminal Libya fiasco unfolded shortly after General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell became household words.

With Benghazi, the CIA, DOD, and the State Department lost a diplomatic cover CIA Annex, a “black” gun running operation, and four brave men, including an ambassador. The al Qaeda/ISIS consortium in Libya has been flourishing ever since.

The American ambassador to Libya now does business from Tunisia. Well she might, lest she suffer the same fate as her predecessor. The big loss in North Africa was not an embassy, nor an ambassador. The big loss was Libya, another entire Muslim oil state given over to Muslim theocracy, chaos, and terror. Who would have ever thought that the world would one day be nostalgic for an apostate like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The woman who orchestrated, the Libya fiasco as US Secretary of State is now poised to become the next commander-in-chief. Given the politics of generals these days, it’s not hard to imagine that General Petraeus might be auditioning for rehabilitation and another job in the next administration. 

Withal, the Petraeus soap opera is a fitting coda to Libya as we knew it. Our general was, up to that point, the doctrinal darling of the Department of Defense, an institution that has not won a small war, nor “stabilized” a third world autocracy, since Korea. Indeed, the Korean stalemate today is a golden success compared to 65 years of futile small wars in the Muslim world.

The phenomenon is now known as the “Long War,” a DOD euphemism for managing expectations about any future American military operations. Indeed, if you read between lines wherever jihad and small wars are discussed, the “new normal” is stasis; the passive prospect of more urban terror, more airliners blown from the sky, and more small wars that no one at the White House or the Pentagon intends to win.

The goals of Long War aficionados are “stability” and “nation building” and other such vagaries. Success or military victory is not part of the discussion. Indeed, the idea is to use soldiers and Marines like schoolies, cops, and social workers – or targets more likely. The underlying premise of contemporary doctrine is that we should pander; facilitate immigration, study Arabic language, accommodate Muslim culture no matter how vile, and allow more mosques. All the while hoping Muslims will become more like us.

The only sizable Muslim ethnic group capable of reform or integration with the West is Kurdistan. Alas, the Kurds are likely to be thrown to Turkish wolves again by DOD and NATO as soon as their utility in the ISIS fight is exhausted.

Wishful thinking is the hijab of appeasement. America and Europe are turning one cheek, and then the other, then bending over – and praying the future of our collective azimuths will not be as painful as the last fifty years. More of the same might be a recipe for success if and when Europe and America view the world from prayer rugs too.

Part of the problem, surely self-inflicted, is a kind of strategic ambiguity that defies logic and experience. One the one hand, insidious regime change schemes create political vacuums only to have the void filled by theocracy. On the other hand, subsequent civil/sectarian wars are aggravated by American generals and intelligence agents who throw money and arms at both sides of the Shia/Sunni divide.

A US soldier in places like Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan is likely to be killed or maimed by weapons purchased by the American taxpayer. Indeed, neither the Intelligence Community nor DOD has reliable Shia or Sunni allies in the Ummah. Most jihadist sects are joined by contempt for Europe and America. The loyalty of most Muslim, Persian, or Arab factions lasts as long as the baksheesh, hashish, opium, bacha bazi, and immigrant quotas hold out.

“Soft power” doesn’t win friends or wars.

How did we get to where we are? At what point did the American defense establishment morph into feckless flakes, both intrusive busy bodies and pandering catamites? The answer to these questions may lie with science and prophecy.

The science is ironically called military “art:” strategy, operations, doctrine, and tactics. The idea is that success and victory are usually a function of concrete capabilities (air, land and sea) artfully applied. The “artfully applied” bit is the job of flag officers like General Petraeus. Alas, Petraeus is not just any general; he is also a military intellectual. Indeed, like his biblical namesake, David is a modern warrior/prophet, the author of a military Koran of sorts: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, US Army Field Manual 3-24.

General Petraeus literally wrote the book that provides the doctrine, or should we say dogma, that rationalizes modern operational art in the 21st Century.  Petraeus cant is not without its critics, but who reads military manuals - or their reviews? Nonetheless, the Petraeus worldview is fairly consistent with prevailing sentiments about politically correct social and foreign policy memes. No surprises there.

Unfortunately, like domestic social problems, throwing good lives and scarce resources willy-nilly at global religious riot has proved to be a poor investment.  The only proven remedy for toxic ideology is eradication, defeat in detail.

General Washington didn’t need to convert the English; he needed to defeat the idea of colonial imperialism. General Grant didn’t need to win the hearts and minds of Georgians; he needed Sherman to scorch a path to Atlanta, flank General Lee, and set the table at Appomattox. Eisenhower and MacArthur didn’t need to “stabilize” Germany and Japan; FDR needed his generals to defeat two toxic ideologies – and demand unconditional surrender.

“Nation building” is a logical consequence of, not a substitute for, victory.

War, in its essence, is the art and science of killing and breaking things. If you are not in it to win it, you shouldn’t begin it. George Patton put it best, “I am a soldier. I fight where I’m told. I win where I fight.” Patton’s and MacArthur’s doctrines reflected the harsh realities of warfare, not wishful thinking. Rationalizing contemporary military invasions as humanitarian interventions is disingenuous malarkey. Regime change and imperial democracy have little to do with concern for human life and nothing to do with moral superiority.

Petraeus doctrine assumes its conclusions -- and excludes other contingencies. Jihad, religious war, civil war, revolution, urban revolt, imperial, and proxy wars are the excluded middles. Indeed, if we were to aggregate most global conflicts at the moment, they could be captured under a single rubric, religious war, surely not insurgency or counterinsurgency. 

Petraeus’s rhetoric about “insurgency” is just the bong resin of Vietnam. Killing and terrorizing real or imagined secular, apostate, or infidel enemies is religious war by any plain, if not simple, definition. When politicians and generals cannot define the conflict, or the enemy, defeat or indefinite conflict becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The fact the White House, the Department of Defense, or generals like Petraeus do not choose to see, or recognize, the many conflicts, within and without the Muslim world, as jihad does not make those small wars any less of a global threat. How aggressors like Osama bin-Laden, Mullah Omar, or Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi see warfare is much more relevant than any social rationalizations or defensive wishful thinking at the Pentagon.

General Petraeus had opportunities to provide a proof of concept with commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. His celebrated doctrine did not provide a framework for victory in either posting. Indeed, by any fair evaluation, the Taliban and the Islamic State have out-generaled the Pentagon with terror, jihad , and an Islamist war doctrine that guys like Petraeus fail to comprehend. 

Clarity about the nature of war is one of many advantages for the ideologue, the Islamist, the jihadist, the terrorist, and the passive aggressive Muslim majority. Bruce Hoffman put it best; terror and small wars are the preferred Muslim tactics because ideological clarity and terror works. The restive Ummah wins, while the West just bleeds.

The no-man’s-land between strategic clarity and the fog of war in America is now littered with nearly100,000 American casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan alone. But then again, they’re volunteers now. So maybe the dead and maimed don’t matter that much anymore.

This is not to lay the burden of the Muslim Wars at the feet of General Petraeus. He is just the guidon in a long gray line of strategic lemmings. Petraeus is not unique; he is a logical consequence of a culture that confuses resume, position, and promotion with achievement.

Unfortunately, David is a flag with a paper trail, if we can mix a few metaphors. Yet, unlike most of his mute peers, Petraeus can’t stay away from the ink well. Indeed, when it comes to any well, David Petraeus doesn’t know when to stop digging.

The other day, General Petraeus penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post where he exhumed every politically correct canard and excuse for Islam, Muslims, terrorists, recent small wars, and future jihads. His headline, “Anti-Muslim Bigotry Aids Islamist Terrorists,” captures the flavor of what followed. The general’s argument begins by blaming the victim and goes downhill from there. In short, the Petraeus plea equates pushback against toxic religious ideology or its barbaric consequences as bigotry on the part of victims. For General Petraeus, those who would put a choke chain on Mecca and Mohammed make more terror possible.

Part of the general’s apologetics is couched in terms of “moral considerations.” While we could dismiss any appeal to morality as a slip of the lip, getting ethical advice from David Petraeus, at this point, is a little like getting marriage counseling from Bill Clinton. If David’s argument is a replay of the usual moral equivalence hokum, he fails to tell us why Buddhists, Christians, and Jews do not chop off heads in God’s name as their Muslim brothers do.

We might pose a few questions for David Petraeus, Fred Hiatt, Martin Baron, and Jeff Bozos too. What should we tell gold and blue star mothers these days? What do we tell casualty wives, brothers, sisters, and children? Who are we fighting? What are we fighting? Why are we fighting? When does it end? What can we reasonably expect to achieve besides another generation of White House and Pentagon sissies kicking the Muslim can down the road?

Withal, we might also offer David Petraeus and like-minded flag officers, who shoot from the grave, some modest advice. Please, shut up! You have done enough damage already.

About the Author(s)

The author is a former USAF Intelligence officer, Vietnam veteran, a graduate of Iona College (BA), the University of Southern California (MS), the Defense Intelligence College, and the Air War College. He is a former Senior USAF Research Fellow at RAND Corporation, Santa Monica and the former Director of Research and Russian (nee Soviet) Studies, ACS Intelligence, HQ USAF, serving under General James Clapper. Colonel Donovan has served at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Central intelligence Agency.


Re: a discussion of both "the nature of war" and "strategic clarity," let us consider two important, and interconnected I believe, items presented by "Slapout" below; these being:

a. "America's purpose." And

b. The "American way of war."

In this regard, let us consider LTC (ret.) Antulio J. Echevarria II's item provided immediately below:

Based on the information provided by LTC Echevarria here, one might suggest (as LTC Echevarria clearly does) that:

a. As to "America's purpose" (in our case today, transforming outlying states and societies of the Middle East and elsewhere more modern western political, economic and social lines),

b. "America's way(s) of war" tend to fail to suggest how military triumphs -- "whether on the scale of major campaigns or small-unit actions" -- will be turned into strategic success.

Herein to consider that our author, COL Donovan's, suggestions above; these, likewise, appear to contain this exact same flaw/failing/error. (And, thus, are much more likely to contribute to "strategic failure" rather than to "strategic success?)

GEN Petraeus' suggestions, however, for their part, appear to contain no such flaw/error/failing? This, given that they can be seen -- oh so much more easily -- from a "strategic success" perspective? (Again, in our case today, from the perspective of transforming the states and societies of the Middle East and elsewhere more along modern western political, economic and social lines.)

Thus to suggest that the United States may benefit greatly from further "Shots from the Grave" by GEN Petraeus and those "strategic" military thinkers of his ilk.

To wit: Those individuals who can actually make a connection between (a) "America's purpose" and (b) "America's (needs to be complimentary) way(s) of war?"


Thu, 06/23/2016 - 3:54pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I disagree with some of your basic premises.

1-Nationalism does not mean better just different. Doesn't mean some type of automatic conflict.

2-Do not confuse Putin's Brinksmanship with irrationality.

3-There is no "End to this." Life is a process. The question is how should we act and interact with the rest of the world and why?.

4-Radical Islam is not rational due to the fact that their stated goal is to hasten the end of the world. You cannot deal with that kind of craziness. But you can destroy it.

As for our course of action. We need to start with what is the purpose of the United States of America? That is the question.....not how will this end.

Bill C.

Thu, 06/23/2016 - 12:54pm

In reply to by slapout9

But note the trend -- both in parts of the Islamic World and, for example, in Russia -- of (a) noting and identifying such things as these such regions differing values, differing heritage, differing culture, etc. and of (b) suggesting that the West has no right to attempt to undermine, obliterate and/or replace same.

"The president (Putin) then took a swipe at NATO and U.S. for its meddling in North Africa and the Middle East. “You can’t just impose your version of democracy, of good and evil, onto people of other cultures, with other religions and traditions in this mechanic, automatic way,” he said.…

And note that there are suggestions also that Putin, for example, is not a rational actor.…

Re: this latter point, the author of this New Yorker piece suggesting in his conclusion that -- generally speaking --

"When you are dealing with a something as combustible as that (nationalism) you can’t always rely on rational behavior to prevail."

(Nationalism: A feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries. A desire by a large group of people [such as people who share the same culture, history, language, etc.] to form a separate and independent nation of their own. Merriam-Webster Dictionary.) Sound something like the "Islamic State" to you?

By way of these such arguments by Putin, etc., are these folks not -- effectively we might suggest -- presenting a "West versus The Rest" argument and narrative?

One whose hand we play directly into by suggesting, for example, that Islamic, Russian, Chinese (etc., etc., etc.) values, beliefs, etc., are the "root cause" of our and/or the world's problems?

Herein, the true cost of this such approach (blaming differing religions, beliefs, etc. on all our problems) potentially being that the U.S./the West finds itself at odds and in conflict with -- not just the entire Islamic World -- but, indeed, with the entire Rest of the World? (As per Hungtington?)

Thus, in sum, the U.S./the West, in pursuing this tack, finding itself (a) in much the same place as the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday (to wit: being in conflict with the entire "Rest of the World") and (b) for much the same reason (attempting to undermine, overthrow and replace the entire "Rest of the World's" differing ways of life, differing ways of governance and differing values, attitudes and beliefs)?

Now, as GEN Petraeus might say, "Tell me how this ends?" (In the case of the Soviet Union -- and re: its pursuit of "world transformation" -- it ends with the demise of the USSR.)


Thu, 06/23/2016 - 6:53am

In reply to by Bill C.

China and Russia do not belong in the same catagory as Islam. They fall into the catagory of rational actors. Islam is not.

Based on my suggestion below, that not only our Islamic opponents but now our Russian, Chinese, etc., opponents also understand that their distinct/different beliefs, religions, identities, heritages, etc., are, in fact:

a. The matters that stand most directly in the way of our "transformational" ambitions for them. And, thus, are

b. The matters around which "resistance to westernization" (shall we say) might best be organized and carried out.

Given this understanding then, if we are going to blame our problems with certain people of the Islamic belief on Islam, then -- by extension -- are we not going to blame our problems with certain Russian, Chinese, etc., people on their beliefs, their heritage, their identity, etc. also?

This, given that -- in both the Islamic case -- and indeed in the Russian, the Chinese, etc., etc., etc., cases also -- ALL such differing beliefs, cultures, identities, etc., appear to meet the criteria that I have identified at my sub-paragraphs "a" and "b" above?

If such is the case, then where does this -- (Soviet/communist "world revolution"-looking?) -- "West v. The Rest of the World" narrative/approach take us?

And when, where and how does this such -- (New/Reverse Cold War?) -- conflict end?

J Harlan

Tue, 06/21/2016 - 7:37pm

The current wars with various Muslim groups is the direct result of the US trying to control the Persian Gulf. Curiously many people in the region object to armed foreigners telling them what to do. Since there has never been such a technological divide between sides in a war they must turn to guerilla war and hope to wear down US public support for the wars.

Islam is not the reason for the wars. It is a rallying cry to people driven by xenophobia, tribalism and nationalism.

Applying more firepower is unlikely to make a difference. Leaving these people alone will. Russia isn't going to take the Gulf. The US has plenty of it's own oil. The rationale for controlling the Gulf is gone. It's time to come home with very little fanfare.


Tue, 06/21/2016 - 1:27pm

Extremely well researched and written. Thank you for taking the time to refocus our collective eyes on this alarming reality. We need more, and more, and more of this kind of analysis.


Tue, 06/21/2016 - 4:13pm

In reply to by Bill C.

America often loses whenever they follow other countries theories. She often does well when she figures out and applies the American Way Of War.

Re: "the clarity of the nature of war," it is important to note that one does not find C.E. Callwell, Rudyard Kipling or Joseph Schumpeter (all luminaries in the time known as the "New Imperialism"?) blaming the "small wars," which occur during the "long war" of this age, on such things as the opponent's "religion."

Rather, these individuals -- uniformly it would appear -- blame such "small wars" on (a) the enhanced commerce and trade ambitions of the "expansionist"-oriented Western powers and on (b) the state and societal "transformation" requirements (as per "colonization" then) that these such enhanced commerce and trade ambitions routinely brought in their wake.


a. Callwell would tell us that "small wars" were the "heritage of extended empire, a certain epilogue to encroachments into lands beyond the confines of existing civilization;" wherein, "the trader heralds almost as a matter of course the coming of the soldier and the commercial enterprise in the end generally leads to conquest."… (See Chapter II: The Causes of Small Wars.)

b. Schumpeter would describe the matter in these terms: "Where cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the civilized nations undertakes the task of colonization."

c. Kipling, in his "White Man's Burden" would describe the situation in much the same way. Herein, it is important to note that Senator Benjamin Tillman would read aloud three stanzas of “The White Man’s Burden” and suggest that U.S should renounce claim of authority over the Philippine Islands. To that effect, Senator Tillman asked:

"Why are we bent on forcing upon them a civilization not suited to them, and which only means, in their view, degradation and a loss of self-respect, which is worse than the loss of life itself?…


Now you have before you some clarity re: the true "nature of war" and the causes of "small wars" both yesterday and today. And, also, you now have before you a better understanding of the "long war" imperialist context within which -- both yesterday and today -- these such "small wars" appear to take place.

Based on this understanding, do we still wish to blame our problems on (a) "them" and (b) "their religion?"

The answer here may indeed be "yes;" this, given that, re: our enhanced commerce and trade designs for these outlying states and societies, the ordering, organizing and orienting principles of "religion" -- and, thus, of different culture and identity --are, indeed, (a) what appears to stand most directly in our way and (b) the thing around which resistance might best and most-effectively be organized. (Even the Russians and the Chinese, and re: their "resistance" efforts of today, appear to understand this.)

We should note, however, that our late 19th and early 20th century counter-parts would not and did not blame their problems on their opponents and these opponent's religion, culture or identity.

Rather, Callwell would state things more in terms of "the great nation which seeks expansion in remote quarters of the globe must (simply) accept the consequences."


Tue, 06/21/2016 - 2:56am

All the way, Sir!